Many confessional colleges and universities encourage diversity among their students and faculty. Yet while affirming diversity, there are sociological hurdles to overcome which rarely are acknowledged or confronted. Within the field of Biblical Studies, Kathryn J. Smith points out that these hurdles include the tendency to limit pedagogical offerings to those methods developed out of the modernist, rationalist presuppositions of the 19th and 20th centuries. In order to create a truly diverse campus climate, however, biblical scholars are urged here to include postcolonial approaches to biblical hermeneutics. These approaches enfranchise and include students and faculty of color, thus contributing to a truly transformational kind of diversity. Ms. Smith is Professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University.
I am currently in the process of proposing a program in Global Biblical Hermeneutics in the Biblical Studies Department of a confessional Christian institution, Azusa Pacific University, which is in the greater Los Angeles area of Southern California. I am driven in this endeavor primarily by my own commitment to doing hermeneutics from the position of the socially marginalized. My reasons are myriad: because of my gender, because of my own ethnicity (I am half Hispanic), because of my life experiences (I lived for two years in Asia), and because of my own theological and ethical commitments, especially my commitments to Jewish-Christian dialogue. While I acknowledge my own position of privilege as an academic, albeit in a non-tenured institution, nevertheless, all of these experiences or status locations have been the cause of my either experiencing marginalization myself or seeing things from the perspective of other marginalized outsiders; hence my interest.
My university has a very strongly stated commitment to diversity.1 With that incentive, I am encouraged in my efforts toward introducing more diverse voices into the classroom experience. However, I am not expecting an easy road. The student body of my university is largely evangelical, and history has taught me that while evangelicals affirm diversity strongly, there are even stronger sociological barriers against cultural diversity that I expect to encounter in presenting this approach to my students.2 It is these sociological barriers that I hope to explore in this essay using postcolonial theory as the avenue for exploration. In the process, I also am advocating that those of us who do Biblical Studies in a confessional setting reexamine some of our cultural concerns about postcolonialism, an approach which is, to me, strongly warranted for educators in our field.
Currently in the field of Biblical Studies, the global hermeneutical work that is most pervasive builds heavily upon postcolonial theory as it has emerged within literary criticism. As such, it translates very naturally into the study of the Bible. Postcolonial Biblical Hermeneutics is a relatively new approach which builds upon the contention that western biblical scholarship has been guilty of making totalizing claims in its exegesis of the Bible and has failed to acknowledge the contingent, provisional nature of those claims. This has resulted in the silencing and marginalization of non-western exegetes who approach the Bible asking different questions and drawing on different logical constructs. In light of this, postcolonial theory takes very seriously the deep interrelation that has developed in history between the study and propagation of the Bible and the furtherance of western colonial and imperial domination.
One might argue that an approach more consistent with my institution’s tradition would be to teach the Bible from the perspective of contextual theology. In fact, Stephen Moore, a noted postcolonial scholar, writes that “postcolonial biblical criticism has, more often than not, been less another spillover from literary studies than a distinctive inflection of liberation hermeneutics, most especially contextual hermeneutics.”3
Indeed, a responsible global hermeneutical approach that is specifically theological must include contextual theology, and there are many contextual theologians whose critiques of modernity and whose solutions are almost identical to those of postcolonial theorists. As such, there is much within the discipline that is extremely helpful.4 Ultimately, however, contextualization as it is used within evangelical circles, while important, ignores key ethical concerns which postcolonialism, on the other hand, brings to the fore. Because of this, my approach would be to employ contextual theology but to subject it to rigorous critique as it is used among evangelicals.
David Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen report that by the 1970s, the Theological Education Fund (TEF) of the International Missionary Council recognized the importance for local, indigenous cultures to construct their own contextualized theologies.5 However, conservative evangelical missions experts distanced themselves quickly from this new development.6 Instead, claim Hesselgrave and Rommen, conservative evangelicals put forth their own definition for contextualization. This definition did not highlight or critique colonialized power inequities in the missions endeavor.7 Hesselgrave and Rommen claim that the majority used this occasion to break away from the TEF and to develop missions strategies based on their own culturally-defined and universalizing definitions. For these evangelical contextualizers, it is the task primarily of the missionary/interpreter, not of the local people of faith, to “bridge the gap back to the horizon of the text and accurately understand its intended meaning.”8 Contextualization, as thus described, is implicated profoundly in both Enlightenment and colonial constructs of knowledge.
Some evangelical contextualizers do not appear to recognize the comprehensiveness of their westernized perspective. As an example, western tradition, because its history is one in which the coercive power of the state was itself Christian, sometimes expects humble submission to state authorities as an inherently Christian posture.9 When evangelicals universalize such claims as constituting the normative reading of Scripture, they have claimed for themselves universal power to find the true meaning of the text. In doing so, they invalidate and silence other readings that grow out of other political experiences.
These perspectives, then, are contingent and historically situated; however, the scholars and theologians cited above can only see them as universal gospel truth. Ultimately, this perspective fails to recognize the disordered power claims of the western missionaries and hence fails to create a system in which the subjugated people are freed to interpret the Bible out of their own social historical soil.
There are, however, other approaches to contextualization that both challenge the notion of an unchanging, eternal—hence, decontextualized—gospel and affirm the notion that each culture must be given the freedom to develop its own theology, social systems, and approach to the gospel. Susan Smith is one scholar who challenges this traditional missions approach. She argues that contextual theology needs to be informed by postcolonialism and that, in order to do contextual theology with a postcolonial hermeneutic, the task must be carried out by the local communities, not the missionaries.10
Lesslie Newbigin is another contextual theologian who represents the latter approach. As a result of long years working as a missionary in India, he also recognized the place of colonial power structures in shaping meaning. He acknowledged that when local populations begin to develop their own theologies, there is an inevitable tension that develops between them and the seminary world, which represents western Christianity. The tension, he noted, is heightened because of colonialism.11 It is these voices, more attuned to the provisional nature of meaning and to the damage that has been wrought by western colonialism, which can engage with issues of colonial power more easily.
Postcolonial readers critique such claims of a universal, unchanging gospel. In doing so, however, they are not arguing, alternately, for a relativism without truth claims.12 Nevertheless, there are those who make this charge. For instance, Paul Hiebert likened what he called “uncritical contextualization” to “the denial of absolutes and of ‘truth.’”13 In making this accusation, Hiebert failed to understand the claims of postcolonial proponents. In fact, they, like other postmodernists, make very strong truth claims and they bring evidence to support those claims, but they do so acknowledging the situatedness of those claims.14 Here lies the fundamental difference between postcolonial readings and many evangelical contextual readings—a difference shared, as well, by the evangelical or confessional postmodern readings discussed above.
Contextualization, as it has been articulated within some circles of evangelicalism, thus is deeply problematic for an approach to globalization that turns away from paternalism and dichotomous power structures. It, in contrast, is characterized by paternalism. It tends to reserve to the western observer the authority to determine the boundaries of meaning—meaning which is assumed to reside, unchangingly, in the biblical text. Finally, it has failed to address the colonial matrix of the whole modern missions endeavor.15
In the end, contextualization theory itself is implicated in colonialism because it is a product of the western missionary endeavor. George Marsden, a well-known evangelical scholar, discusses this implication when he notes that, in the 19th century, the missionaries were the vanguard of colonial expansion and that they internalized its values and practices deeply.16 To be sure, he urges his readers not to ignore the many examples in which missionaries sided with local populaces against violent acts of their fellow colonizers. Indeed, he argues, the relationship between them was often ambiguous and conflicted; nevertheless, throughout the history of nineteenth-century missions, missionaries and expansionist armies went hand-in-hand. By the late 19th century, missionaries themselves, notes Marsden, were eagerly taking up Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” in order to bring civilization and a higher order of society to the uncivilized peoples of the world.17 ToKipling, the task of colonizing was one of the burdens that civilization must take up on behalf of the colonized “half-devil and half-child”:
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.18
For those concerned about the ethics of mission, this is a serious breach that results in distrust of missionary endeavors for many people who have been disempowered by colonialism. In the period of modernity, the Bible was introduced to the people of Africa, the Americas, and Asia as a corollary of the colonial endeavors of the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and, ultimately, white Americans. It is true that many of these former empires no longer hold the sway of direct military force in these regions and that many churches have now been established with local oversight and local seminaries. Nevertheless, neo-colonial values and models persist through contemporary theological training and through Western efforts at globalization.
Missionaries during the colonial period brought with them and attempted to disseminate the values of these empires. These values were patriarchal and paternalistic; they assumed divine privilege for the West, which took form as Manifest Destiny and other doctrines of divine sanction for their expansion and exploitation of lands and people. They constructed the world in strongly demarcated dichotomies: male/female; public/private; civilized/savage; white/black; sane/mad; normal/abnormal.19 Those whom they classified in the lower status of the dichotomous relationship were assumed to occupy that low rung by divine appointment and calling.20 Robert J. C. Young cites Frederick J. D. Lugard’s 1922 The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa as a demonstration of how closely linked colonialism and the impulse to create social dichotomies are:
As Roman imperialism laid the foundations of modern civilization, and led the wild barbarians of these islands along the path of progress, so in Africa today we are repaying the debt, and bringing to the dark places of the earth, the abode of barbarism and cruelty, the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilization . . . We hold these countries because it is the genius of our race to colonise, to trade, and to govern.21
Constructions of reality such as this, which accepted the mechanisms of imperial power as socially beneficial, are inescapable. They were pervasive in all fields of human endeavor—religion, trade, commerce, social theory, anthropology, economics, and politics—and their pervasiveness has a legacy in contemporary western culture. This is the legacy of colonialism, which shapes all relationships between westerners and formerly colonized peoples to this day.22
It is for these reasons that contextualization, as understood among many evangelical missions scholars, is insufficient for a confessional Christian engagement with the two-thirds world that takes seriously the perspectives, the traditions, and the economic, political, and social elements which non-westerners or subjugated westerners may bring to their readings of Scripture. It fails to question the western appropriation of meaning and the colonial underpinnings of that appropriation adequately. It equates western assumptions about doctrine, theology and biblical truth with timeless orthodoxy and fails to recognize the extent to which the western, imperial tradition has shaped and molded the category of orthodoxy over time and geography.
I must include two caveats. First, I am not advocating that we ignore contextualization—just that we recognize its limitations and challenge the approaches of those distinctively evangelical contextualizers who avoid questioning the legacy of colonialism. Second, to challenge this evangelical form of contextualization is not to make a wholesale challenge of the traditional, western approaches to interpreting the Bible. It is, on the other hand, to recognize that throughout Christian history, people’s interpretations of the Bible have been influenced by geography, time, culture, history, economics, politics, class, race, and gender. Second-century African Christians from Carthage appropriated biblical teachings differently than did sixteenth-century Reformationists. As such, when we exegete the Bible, we must account for the multiple dialogues occurring between texts, communities, social location, and meaning.
Contemporary approaches to biblical interpretation that claim to focus exclusively on the meaning of the text ignore the web of meaning construction that occurs in the transmitting of the text, the contemporary reception and interpretation of the text, and the give-and-take that occurs along the spectrum, including its transmission under the colonizers’ shadow. Hence, while claiming to be transmitting only the orthodox, unchanging faith, those evangelicals who advocate for this type of contextualization leave unspoken the gaps, the breaches, the fissures, and the power claims that exist within their own assertions of orthodoxy. It is not that they have it all wrong. It is that they can only muster an inadequate and incomplete depiction of biblical and theological meaning because of their failure to recognize their own subjective disposition. They fail to recognize that the categories chosen, the motifs highlighted, and the questions asked will only lead them to a limited set of conclusions—a set that is compelling to some westerners but not so to those outside of the center of western hermeneutics—a set that often validates western power constructs at the expense of those outside that center.
This brings me back to postcolonialism as a hermeneutical approach that allows for the respect and acknowledgement of the historical and spiritual power of the text but also recognizes the legitimacy of communities bringing meaning to the text by engaging in dialogue with it from the soil of their own social historical experiences.
Postcolonial theory is characterized by its questioning of the cultural practices of classical biblical scholarship, especially the practice of privileging in our discourse the questions that are urgent to westerners and of drawing only on western logic constructs in forming exegetical conclusions. These days, those who are outside of the centers of this culture of scholarship are beginning to do their exegesis by asking questions drawn from their own social/historic/class/gendered experience. Postcolonial biblical hermeneutics can guide them in which methodological tools to use in the process.
Proponents of this hermeneutical approach call for a change in our discourse and our language so that individuals and groups formerly considered as objects by the western “center” are now given a voice as subjects in the task of interpreting the Bible. For instance, postcolonial interpreters strongly question the assumptions of modernity which led to the development of most contemporary biblical methodologies, all of which privilege the interests of the discursive centers of power. In this, postcolonial critics draw from postmodern critics such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, biblical scholars, mostly German ecclesiastics, created historical methodologies that were predicated upon the Enlightenment traditions of rational discourse. They claimed that they could arrive at universally valid historical conclusions because of the rational basis for their methods, now freed from the constraints of religious dogma. Unwilling to acknowledge the depth to which their own theological presuppositions and inclinations shaped their work, their goal was to evaluate scriptural evidence objectively to derive historical “meaning” from the text. This meaning was derived objectively and was objectively verifiable—so they asserted.
There was a necessary backlash to this approach personified by Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann argued that the historical approach failed in as a way of yielding universally valid conclusions about the theological message of the Bible. His approach was to use historical criticism itself to demonstrate the irrelevance of historical claims vis-à-vis the Bible and thus he created a basis to focus instead on the Christ of proclamation. In this way, he hoped to circumvent the search for the “meaning” of the text solely through empirical historical analysis, which he knew would always fall prey to the interpreter’s preunderstandings. But he fell into thevery trap he hoped to avoid. Although he severed the Bible from history, he could not sever himself from history. He still made universalizing claims, albeit theologi-al ones. Thus his Christ of proclamation turned out to be the Christ of early twentieth-century Europe, reflecting its values and ethics.
Bultmann’s own disciples recognized this weakness and attempted to synthesize his theology of proclamation with historical questions about Jesus. Later biblical scholars, however, have widened the gap between history and theology even further. In rare cases, however, was there an abandonment of the practice of making universal claims—whether historically or theologically based. Moreover, behind these claims was a very clear use of power as a maneuver, a tactic, to assert dominance over the objects being studied and over the field of Biblical Studies itself. Michel Foucault has pointed out that
power produces knowledge . . . that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, norany knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.23
That is, the very choice of categories to explore, the classifications, groupings, and constructs that make up our knowledge base, are founded on and undergirded by power inequities. Foucault has shown that there is no such thing as disinterested knowledge and that all knowledge presupposes claims for power.24 This important social/political element too often has been unstated and unacknowledged by scholars in Biblical Studies.
Those power inequities are inherent in the discourse of the academic culture of biblical scholarship despite its proponents’ claims, whether they are of universal objectivity and disinterested neutrality free from cultural restraints on the one hand, or of uncovering the Christ of faith irrespective of historical questions on the other. Both streams contribute to a single culture, a culture that is patriarchal, hierarchical, and highly centralized. It is patriarchal and hierarchical in that it sets up strongly guarded power differentials between teacher and student. Its success throughout the 19th and 20th centuries depended upon these strong and entrenched disparities in power between the Doktorvater and his compliant charges (rarely were women given access to these posts in Biblical Studies until the mid- to late 20th century).25
The culture has become centralized in that, shaped in Enlightenment ideals, it has sought to create the construct of the objective and disinterested interpreter able to make universaling claims. The expected result of this construct is to create an interpretive norm against which others are labeled as deviant. Ideally, this norm effaces personal, hence human, cultural interests. Dehumanization and non-subjectivity are the goals that are desired in order to produce rational, objective conclusions (or theological ones) upon which all can agree.26 Model interpreters are those who are able to present themselves with an effaced, undisclosed persona as they exegete the biblical text.
Deviants are identified easily once this norm is established. They are those who refuse to or cannot sufficiently efface themselves or mask their own subjective concerns. Once they are identified and marginalized, a strongly centralized culture is able to assert itself within the field, resulting in what is portrayed as a positive consensus. To be sure, the motive as it developed appeared justified. It was to displace an equally patriarchal and hierarchical culture in which dogma, rather than objective neutrality, was the normative ideal—a set of cultural constructs that itself legitimated all sorts of power inequities. Nevertheless, what resulted was a new construction of power that was no less effective in marginalizing, silencing, and suppressing dissent.
The field of Biblical Studies has followed the academy in constructing and sustaining a unique culture built upon a unique power structure. In order to perpetuate it, its adherents are trained to inculcate students, whatever their culture, class, or gender, into unquestioning acceptance of these cultural norms. They are trained to ask certain questions and not others—to employ certain assumptions, certain methodologies, and certain epistemologies and not others. They are told that neutrality is the desired goal—in fact, that neutrality is the best way to side-step power.27 In reality, however, this idealized neutrality inscribes power in the interpreter and in the guild by silencing the voices that do not concur with its Enlightenment assumptions, voices which arise most often outside of male, Western, clerical culture.28 Thus, within the field, a culture has emerged and is sustained which is structured to create a rigid definition of normativity and to rigorously punish deviance. This culture still presides over the academy today.29
Finally, postcolonial biblical criticism brings to the fore the colonial assumptions that are imbedded in the academic study of the Bible.30 The culture of the biblical academy did not emerge from a vacuum. It was developed and nurtured during the height of western colonialism and imperialism. As such, its presuppositions, its logic, and its modes of marginalizing the non-western “Other” were birthed and nourished in that colonial field.31 In response to this tradition, Edward Said,referring to the repressive history of “Oriental Studies,” which overlaps with andincludes Biblical Studies, wrote,
For contemporary students of the Orient, from university scholars to policymakers, I have written with two ends in mind: one, to present their intellectual genealogy to them in a way that has not been done; two, to criticize—with the hope of stirring discussion—the often unquestioned assumptions on which their work for the most part depends.32
The “genealogy” to which Said refers is the colonial environment in which Oriental Studies was birthed and nourished. Musa Dube asks a significant question for postcolonial biblical critics: “Given the role of the Bible in facilitating imperialism, how should we read the Bible as postcolonial subjects?”33
For those scholars who have come to the task of biblical studies in the last few decades and who were not reared in this patriarchal academe, this is indeed a significant question. Within the guild, the questions asked, the power assumptions, and the social expectations have been difficult to swallow in light of the non-objective, highly interested values represented by the conclusions of the scholars who conform to the “center.” The verdict is in. Contemporary methodologies alone in biblical studies have not and will not achieve the ideal of producing purely objective, critically verifiable exegetical conclusions upon which all can agree. The conclusions derived through those methodologies tend to support the values and the social constructs nurtured by colonial and imperial values.
Yes, classical biblical scholarly methods have produced excellent scholarship—scholarship that is valuable and should continue. However, it is time to recognize that it is scholarship that, for the most part, serves and supports the interests of western, male, ecclesiastical concerns on the one hand and secular academic biblical societies on the other, far above those of other groups. There is a third way, however. For confessional Christians doing biblical studies in an academic setting, the status quo raises a serious ethical problem. I want to stress this. Critics of classical biblical scholarship have put before Christian biblical scholars an ethical challenge to which, I believe, a response is required. It is a challenge too urgent and too compelling to ignore or to dismiss. It is a challenge that strikes at the heart of what it means to responsibly bring one’s Christian commitments into the academic study of the Bible.
Like our social and political assumptions, many of our epistemological assumptions also have colonial beginnings. How does one construct knowledge? What are the valid bases for an argument? In all this, religious practitioners operating under the assumptions of colonialism often have been unaware of the socialand historical underpinnings of their epistemologies—that is, they assumed they were discovering universal, timeless epistemological principles for constructing meaning rather than using culturally-derived principles that legitimate structures of power. As a result, certain ways of constructing meaning were privileged over other ways and, by extension, over other societies for whom construction of meaning developed differently.
For example, storytelling, which is an important way that many non-western societies construct meaning, was seen as an inferior method of conveying meaning or of constructing epistemological claims. Orality was classified as a less reliable way to convey knowledge than was literacy. Constructions of memory were shaped according to specifically western and Christian historical experiences.34 These constructions are products of our colonial heritage.
Aristotelian logic and logic constructed on western philosophical principles was privileged as valid for purposes of argumentation. In this way, knowledge became the purview of the elite, Western-educated dominant classes. These groups, operating within their colonial perspectives, proclaimed their knowledge to have universal validity and, hence, the knowledge constructions of those who differed in culture, class, or gender were invalid, foolish, and unintelligible. As a consequence, those who did not embody the values that were accentuated by the colonizers lost status even in their own non-western communities.35 Hence we see that Enlightenment assumptions, when propagated within a colonialist culture, belittle and disparage those who do not share such knowledge constructions.
This brings us to the most telling characteristic of colonial culture, which is its ability, as occupying the social, cultural, political, and economic center, to proclaim its values as universal and indisputable. The center controls the discourse.36 Edward Said explains it well: “Texts can create not only knowledge but also the very reality they appear to describe.”37 As a result, all those who occupy lower status according to the western epistemological constructions are forced, by the discursive power of the center, to accept and internalize these universalized values and perspectives, even when the values denigrate those marginalized peoples. Over one hundred years ago, African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois stated it most compellingly when he likened this sociological phenomenon to a veil. Writing in 1903, he stated:
After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.38
For Du Bois in 1903, the effect of this social construction of the Other comes through powerfully. He experienced it as an ongoing act of social, collective violence. It is to this discursively constructed “reality” that Du Bois reacted. The effect of this totalizing discourse is devastating upon those outside of the center. To be sure, this violence—this devastation—is not necessarily something wrought by the individual westerner upon the subjugated party. Rather, it is a kind of social violence that implicates all in its inescapable cruelty. Du Bois’ agonized description depicts how non-whites, women, non-westerners, the poor, and the young have experienced the elite knowledge and status constructions that have been imposed upon them. The sociological center in a culture possesses the power, through its language, its symbols, and its rational structures, to construct reality for the others over which it holds sway and, more significantly, to impose that construction of reality on those subjugated others until they believe it too.
John Howard Yoder rightly recognized colonial power as an ethical problem that strikes at the core of what it is to be a Christian. He wrote, “To constitute a visible community there has to be an answer to the problem of power.”39 For Yoder, the sins that followed Constantine’s rise to the throne and his symbolic importance for the church are concerns that should occupy the center of Christian ethical deliberations. He decried the transition of the church in the world “from suffering servant to Imperatrix” and argued that this transition was central to many of its abuses in history.40
These are the disjunctions which postcolonialism addresses. It addresses the universalizing discourse of the west, its patriarchy and hierarchical structure, its claims of objectivity and denial of its own subjectivity, and its knowledge construction and the elitism that follows from it, all of which result in a kind of social violence being perpetrated on those who are outside of its epistemologically constructed center.
How can this be applied practically to the field of Biblical Studies as it is taught in confessional institutions? First, postcolonial theory prompts us to ask newly significant questions about interpretation. Like traditional practitioners, postcolonialists encourage us to use methodological precision. However, they argue not only that precision be brought to bear to determine the social, political, economic, and cultural worlds of the producers and early transmitters of the text under analysis, but also that equal precision must be used to determine how those elements shape the readers and reading communities themselves. Finally, they argue that the web of meaning that alternates between texts, communities, and social locations undergo equally rigorous analysis. Its theorists argue that these latter tasks are just as important and must be carried out with equal academic rigor as the first task above.41
Secondly, postcolonialism prompts us to look deeply at issues of power and at constructions of power whenever we are engaged in biblical interpretation—again, power as it is manifested at every step of the interpretive process. It acknowledges that social ethics affect both the production and the outcome of interpretation. The power investigated will include not only coercive, military power but also social, economic, political, cultural, and—encompassing all of these—discursive power, the power to claim the center of discourse and the power to construct knowledge. Postcolonialism prompts us to take seriously the perspective of the discursive Other—in the text, in its transmission, in the contemporary world, and in the ongoing interchange that occurs regularly between text, transmission, interpreters, and their communities.42 Its theorists stress also that the solution is not to replace one power center with another. So Brian Blount argues, “To make a marginal-political approach exclusive, however is as ideological as the Eurocentric approach about which we are concerned. We will seek instead an approach that is inclusive of both the marginal and mainstream perspectives.”43 It is the very critique of studying the Bible without questioning how we use power that is central to postcolonialism. The urge for power and the various efforts to mask that urge are the unstated transgressions against which postcolonialism speaks most strongly. Postcolonial theory, then, is not just a tool of identity politics. It decries the hidden and unstated power constructs in identity politics as much as it does those of elite, western European discourse.
Finally, postcolonialism prompts us to look beyond text in our interpretation of the Bible—to look at ritual, custom, liturgy, sacrament, dance, food, and other symbolic enactments of that text and how they function as an expanded canon in ancient communities, past communities, and contemporary communities.44 All of these make for a clearly stated, methodologically rigorous agenda for pursuing Biblical Studies. To be sure, postcolonial theorists affirm many of the methods developed within modernity. The issue is not only the methods used; it is the hermeneutical approach assumed, an approach that seeks to uncover the unstated assumptions of modernity and colonial privilege and to posit new assumptions built upon different presuppositions. These elements are given equal weight by the postcolonial exegete of the text of the Bible.
Given the above parameters, one could argue that postcolonialism should work well within a confessional Christian community—a community that finds itself at odds with some aspects of Enlightenment thinking already, such as its insufficiency to account for the realm of the miraculous or of supernatural realities.45 It should work well with a religious movement which, according to Philip Jenkins, has seen a decided shift in its demographic center to the two-thirds world.46
However, it does not seem to be a hermeneutical approach to which many, more theologically conservative Christians are drawn. Nevertheless, if I am to take seriously my institution’s claim to desire to “develop students who are prepared to interact within a diverse and globally minded society,”47 then I must train them in hermeneutical approaches that prompt people within those diverse and globally minded societies to ask new and fresh questions of the text of Scripture and to bring those questions to the table as full participants rather than as marginalized, “ethnic” Others.
Cite this article
- See Azusa Pacific University, About APU: Diversity, http://www.apu.edu/about/diversity/.
- Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Prob-lem of Race in America (New York: Oxford, 2000), 3, two sociologists who examineevangelicalism and race, write of the results of their research: “Evangelicals come from allethnic and racial backgrounds, but nearly 90 percent of Americans who call themselves evan-gelical are white.” At the end of their study, they conclude, “Despite devoting considerabletime and energy to solve the problem of racial division, white evangelicalism likely doesmore to perpetuate the racialized society than to reduce it” (170).
- Stephen D. Moore, “A Modest Manifesto for New Testament Literary Criticism: How toInterface with a Literary Studies Field that Is Post-Literary, Post-Theoretical, and Post-Meth-odological,” Biblical Interpretation 15 (2007): 14. Moore goes on to qualify his statement, how-ever, referencing R. S. Sugirtharajah’s postcolonial challenge to liberation hermeneutics (p.14, n. 35).
- Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985), comesto mind; nevertheless, he, like other contextualizers, is asking missions-related questionsand thus his conclusions serve western missionaries working to communicate to non-westerners. Unlike some other contextualizers, however, he is deeply aware of the pitfalls ofpaternalism and power (39). Moreover, his desire to communicate from “outside” is tem-pered by his call for the outsider to take a subordinate role in the creation of a contextualizedtheology (41).
- David J. Hesselgrave and Edward Rommen, Contextualization: Meanings, Methods, and Mod-els (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 30. According to Justin Ukpong, it was in a 1972TEF publication that the term “contextualization” was coined. See Justin Ukpong,“Contextualisation: A Historical Survey,” African Ecclesial Review 29.5 (Oct 1987): 278.
- Hesselgrave and Rommen, Contextualization, 32–33. See also Harvie Conn, Eternal Word andChanging Worlds: Theology, Anthropology and Mission in Trialogue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1984), 179. According to Conn, evangelicals’ greatest concern was that the 1972 TEF defini-tion of contextualization would result in a higher likelihood for syncretism. This, claimedConn, arose out of evangelicals’ perceptions of contextualization as simply a matter of com-municating the unchanging gospel in new forms (181–182). While maintaining that syncre-tism was a concern, however, Conn argued that to refuse to construct meaning according tonew cultural forms is in itself the worst kind of syncretism (189). Ultimately, however, al-though he argued for a very broad definition, he, like other evangelical contextualizers, re-fused to abandon the notion of an objective, “gospel core” (192) or “gospel center” (196) thatthe missionaries claimed to have apprehended.
- Ibid., 33. The authors note that evangelicals, in constructing their definition, clung to thecontention that the only thing that needed changing was the verbal form in which the time-less gospel was handed down. Hence there was no questioning of the social forces that led tohow the meaning of that gospel was understood or interpreted by the western evangelicals.
- Hesselgrave and Rommen,Contextualization, 174. See also Paul Hiebert, “CriticalContextualization,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 11.3 (Jul, 1987): 109–110, wherehe writes, “The leader [pastor or missionary] must also have a metacultural framework thatenables him or her to translate the biblical message into the cognitive, affective, and evaluative dimensions of another culture. . . If the people do not clearly grasp the biblical messageas originally intended [emphasis mine], they will have a distorted view of the gospel.” Here, inone statement, Hiebert demonstrates the paternalism of evangelical contextualization andits modernist assumptions.
- The theme of the church’s implication in imperial state power was a favorite of John HowardYoder. Despite allegations of Yoder ’s own personal struggles with the ethics of power, his isan astute observation of historical and religious processes. See, for instance, “TheConstantinian Sources of Western Social Ethics,” in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gos-pel (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 135–147, where he discussed theways that church ethics, ecclesiology, and eschatology all changed dramatically with theacceptance of imperial values and continue in this tradition to this day.
- Susan Smith, “Biblical Interpretation: A Power for Good or Evil?” International Review ofMission 94 (Oct, 2005): 525, 531. Justin Ukpong gives us some other examples of this latterapproach. See Justin Ukpong, “What Is Contextualization?” Neue Zeitschrift fürMissionswissenschaft 43.3 (1987): 161–168.
- Lesslie Newbigin, “Christ and Cultures,” Scottish Journal of Theology 31 (1978): 8.
- See R. S. Sugirtharajah, “‘Biblical Studies in India’: From Imperialistic Scholarship toPostcolonial Interpretation,” in Reading from this Place. Volume 1: Social Location and BiblicalInterpretation in the United States, eds. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (Minneapo-lis: Fortress Press, 1995), 293, where he writes:What will distinguish [postcolonialism] from Orientalist and Anglicist modes of interpretation is the con-viction that the modernist values such models espoused, like objectivity and neutrality, are expressions ofpolitical, religious, and scholarly power. It will reject the myth of objective or neutral truth and will replaceit with a perception of truth as mapped, constructed, and negotiated . . . It will revalorize the hidden oroccluded accounts of numerous groups—women, minorities, the disadvantaged, and the displaced.
- Hiebert, “Critical Contextualization,” 108.
- John Howard Yoder, in The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, eds. Michael G. Cartwrightand Peter Ochs (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 142, makes a similar assertion when hewrites, “We do not have the truth; we confess a truth which has taken possession of us throughno merit of our own. That truth, being the revelation of God’s own vulnerability on the cross,cannot be otherwise commended than in the vulnerability of open encounter with the neigh-bor.” Yoder offers an alternate way to approach questions of truth by using a non-imperial,dialogical approach to the Other. In general, Christian postmodernists share this perspectiveabout truth with postcolonialists. On postmodern claims about the error of associating truthwith objectivity, see also James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism:Taking Derrida,Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 43. Philip Kenneson,in “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” in ChristianApologetics in a Postmodern World, eds. Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis Okholm (DownersGrove, IL: InterVarsity, 1995), 164, argues, “How Christians view and act in the world cannotbe separated from their judgments about the world, judgments which are shaped by thechurch’s narrative and ongoing life. It simply does not make sense to think of reality as it is initself, apart from human judgment.” Kenneson (161) also demonstrates in this essay whyrelativism is not the inevitable outcome of postmodernism. Merold Westphal, in OvercomingOnto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press,2001), 83, puts it this way: “In denying our access to Truth, postmodernists are not saying weshould abandon the distinction between truth and falsity that, for all practical purposes isboth indispensable and fruitful; they are only denying the metaclaim that our truths areTruth.” Finally, David Alan Williams reminds us that “changes in our contemporary talkabout truth are not in isolation from changes in related areas, such as talk about rationality,knowledge and even reality itself. Most people,” he adds, “including most evangelicals, findthese changes disturbing. They leave us out of sorts, uncomfortable and disoriented.” Hegoes on, however, to argue that it is a mistake to think that postmodernism is about denyingthe presence of truth. Rather, “what postmoderns avoid are particular (inadequate) concep-tions of truth, especially those that make a claim of totalizing proportions.” See David AlanWilliams, “Scripture, Truth and Our Postmodern Context,” in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradi-tion, Authority and Hermeneutics, eds. Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguélez, and Dennis L. Okholm(Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 229–30.
- On this see also Daniel Patte, “Acknowledging the Contextual Character of Male, Euro-pean-American Critical Exegesis: An Androcritical Perspective,” in Segovia and Tolbert, Read-ing, 41–42. Emerson and Smith, Divided, 55, assert that it is a “sin” for Christians to ignoreoppressive social structures in American race relations specifically and call for Christians toresist those structures actively. See also 66–67, where they attribute this failure to the radicalindividualism especially notable among white evangelicals.
- George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Orlando: Harcourt College Pub-lishers, 2001; reprint 1990), 71.
- Ibid., 127.
- Rudyard Kipling, The White Man’s Burden (1899), http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/Kipling.html.
See Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed., trans. Alan Sheridan(New York: Vintage Books, 1995, reprint 1977, 1975), 199, who calls this mechanism of power“binary division and branding.”
- Fernando F. Segovia, Decolonizing Biblical Studies: A View from the Margins (Maryknoll, NY:Orbis, 2000), 125. Elsewhere (128), he calls these relational sets “binomials” and argues thatreligious “binomials” are a necessary and inevitable outcome of imperialism.
- Frederick J. D. Lugard, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa (Edinburgh: Blackwood &Sons, 1922), 618–19; quoted in Young, Colonial Desire, 29.
- Because of the constructions of power inherent in colonialism, it also affects subjugatedpeople within western colonial societies such as African Americans, Hispanic Americans,the disabled, women, Jews, Muslims, and others who fall outside of the colonial “center,”both in the United States and in Europe.
- Foucault, Discipline & Punish, 27.
- Ibid., 28.
- Even such a well-entrenched classical biblical scholar as Walter Brueggemann recognizesthis power disparity. In his The Book that Breathes New Life: Scriptural Authority and BiblicalTheology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 12–13, he writes, “The academy in the modernworld practices a form of knowledge aimed to control and which characteristically tends todomination.” In this he echoes Foucault
- See Fernando Segovia, “Introduction: Pedagogical Discourse and Practices in Contempo-rary Biblical Criticism,” in Segovia and Tolbert, Reading, 4. In this process, he writes, “Stu-dent/readers would become teacher/critics by learning how not to read themselves as read-ers, except for the purpose of surfacing theological presuppositions so that these could beproperly identified and duly obviated.” Here again, even if we see Bultmann as offeringanother way, the result of his theological work on Jesus was to produce a dehumanized, de-historicized Jesus. This demonstrates how dependent his own theological work was on thehistory of religions questions that preceded him.
- See John R. Franke, “Scripture, Tradition and Authority. Reconstructing the EvangelicalConception of Sola Scriptura,” in Evangelicals and Scripture,201, who writes, “Interpretivecommunities that deny the reality of this situation and seek an interpretation unencumberedby the ‘distorting’ influence of fallible ‘human traditions’ are in fact enslaved by interpretivepatterns that are allowed to function uncritically, precisely because they are unacknowledged.”Walter Brueggemann, in The Book that Breathes, 138–39, who himself is not a postcolonialcritic, nevertheless echoes this call for western interpreters to acknowledge their own provi-sional readings:Like every interpreter, I read locally and provisionally. I read with certain habits and interests, as a ten-ured, white Christian male. All of my companion readers also read locally and provisionally. No apologyfor local, provisional reading. Apology is to be made for the cultural seduction of forgetting that our reading islocal and provisional and imagining it is total and settled [emphasis mine]. That seduction, very strong inhegemonic Christianity, leads me to read only in isolation or in the company of other readers like myself.Precisely because the text advocates, sponsors, and insists upon many readings, my local, provisionalreading must perforce be done in the presence of other serious readings—not white, not male, not tenured,not Christian—that endlessly subvert my own preferred reading.Brueggemann’s experience of reading in conversation with Jewish scholars such as JonLevenson and M. H. Goshen-Gottstein has taught him that Jews bring different sets of ques-tions to the text than do Christians and thus come up with different readings, which,Brueggemann has discovered, can be deeply meaningful to Christians who engage with themhumbly and openly (Brueggemann, 138). He recognizes that non-white, non-western, andfemale voices can do the same.
- On this, see Sugirtharajah, “‘Biblical Studies in India,’” 293.
- While evangelical scholars have written little about postcolonialism, there are among themstrong proponents of postmodernism, which shares a similar critique. See Graham Ward,Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),147; Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 164–65.Likewise, James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid? argues against totalizing approaches to doctrine,and in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2004), 33, he claims that theologies built upon Enlightenment thinking must gothe way of modernity:The demise of modernity must also spell the demise of such theology. In other words, the critique of theEnlightenment project now calls for a critique of modernist theology that manifests itself across the rangeof liberal and conservative options. The result is—or should be—a new space for confessional proclama-tion in the so-called “public” or political sphere, but at the same time a public theology that eschews theConstantinian project.Smith (51), however, defines “the Constantinian project” here somewhat narrowly as thejoining of church and state (51; see also 37). This narrow definition fails to recognize thepolitics of language, symbols, and non-state systems of constructed power that feed intoimperial values; hence he fails to offer to evangelicals a sufficient challenge to those powerconstructions. See also Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for aPostmodern World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), who, while challenging Enlightenment ratio-nalism, nevertheless appears to ignore imperial power concerns in his desire to posit apostmodern “return” to the early church, including its imperial era. Nevertheless, Grenz,Smith, and Webber represent a growing number of evangelical or confessional Christianswho recognize that their methodology must adapt consciously to the new concerns raised bypostmodernism at the very least. For a specifically postcolonial critique of Enlightenmentrationalism, which goes farther than postmodernism and farther than the above evangelicalsin its critique of colonial and imperial power, see Segovia, Decolonizing, 85.
- Here postcolonial biblical scholars draw on such postcolonial cultural and literary critics asGayatri Spivak, Edward Said, and Homi Bhaba. See Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” inMarxism and the Interpretation of Culture, C. Nelson & L. Grossberg, eds. (Urbana: Universityof Illinois Press, 1988), 271–33; Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978);Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994).
- See Musa W. Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible (St. Louis: Chalice Press,2000); Laura E. Donaldson and Kwok Pui-lan, eds., Postcolonialism, Feminism & Religious Dis-course (New York: Routledge, 2002); Stephen D. Moore and Fernando F. Segovia, PostcolonialBiblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections (New York: T & T Clark, 2005); Segovia,Decolonizing; Sugirtharajah, “‘Biblical Studies in India.’”
- Said, Orientalism, 24.
- Dube, Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation, 4.
- For an alternate way of constructing memory, for example, see Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi,Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1989), whoargues that Jewish memory resides in myth and ritual rather than in history.
- A good example of an alternative set of grounds for argumentation and logic is rabbinicargumentation. Codified in the Midrashim, the rabbis offer a form of argumentation thatdemonstrates a clear alternative to the propositionally-based argumentation and Aristote-lian logic. For other challenges to western logical constructs, see John R. Franke, “God Hid-den & Wholly Revealed: Karl Barth, Postmodernity, and Evangelical Theology,” Books &Culture 9 (Sept/Oct 03): 42; James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid?, 84; Ward, Barth, Derrida, 256.
- Here, following Foucault, I define discourse as the collective systems of communication weconstruct in order to define who is normative, who is deviant; who is ‘in’; who is ‘out’—hence, how we define our social boundaries. See Foucault, 102. The group that defines dis-course defines reality. It can include not only speech but also symbols, signs, systems, texts,and other social constructions that validate a center of power and silence those who deviate
- Said, Orientalism, 94, following Foucault, who in Discipline & Punish lays out the techniqueof “recoding” reality through a variety of textual and symbolic sources, describing, for in-stance (113), “placards, different coloured caps bearing inscriptions, posters, symbols, textsread or printed,” which “tirelessly repeated the code.”
- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Bantam, 1989; reprint 1903), 3.
- Yoder, Jewish-Christian Schism, 128.
- 1Ibid., 138. Nevertheless, his was not a message without hope. He wrote, “The judgement asto the fallenness of Christendom as hierarchical structure and triumphal ethos does not denythe good faith of the possible salvation by grace through faith of persons within Christendomwho despite its intrinsic bias nonetheless live in Christ and in Christian fellowship” (141).While not using the language of postcolonialism, he understood intrinsically its ethical cri-tique of colonial power, of Christianity, and of Christian scholarship. Here, Yoder expandsthe definition of Constantinianism beyond that of merely “an alliance between church andstate” (51; see also 37). Yoder ’s definition is broader and recognizes that when the churchgave the Roman Emperor such symbolic power, it sanctified the notion of hegemonic discur-sive control of one ideology over others. Other western confessional Christians who are con-tending with issues of the Constantinian heritage of the church are Stanley Hauerwas, ABetter Hope: Resources for a Church Confronting Capitalism, Democracy, and Postmodernity (GrandRapids: Brazos Press, 2000); and Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in aPost-Christian Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), among others.
- It is important to stress that postcolonial biblical interpreters do not argue for the abandon-ment of traditional methodologies developed within the field of Biblical Studies. On thecontrary, they strongly encourage mastery of historical criticism, social-scientific criticism,literary criticism, and the various other methodologies currently in use. What they call for isto go further and to apply critical method to the interpreter ’s own webs of knowledge aswell. This can only be done if the interpreter adopts a new hermeneutical approach. Theyargue that to focus on the text and its world as the depository of meaning and to excludeanalytically the reader and reading community yields an interpretation that in itself is in-complete at best, and at worst perpetuates colonial dichotomies of reality that are injuriousto the weaker others.
- Again, Brueggemann acknowledges these problems within biblical interpretation as it hasbeen carried out in the modern period. Referring to the enterprise of interpreting Scripture ina post-modern context, he writes, “By that [post-modern] I mean simply the loss of hege-monic privilege among Christian interpreters or, alternatively, among the ‘ruling class’ ofcritical scholars. This new post-hegemonic situation both permits and requires biblical theol-ogy to be done differently” (Brueggemann, The Book that Breathes, 131). While not using theterm “postcolonial,” Brueggemann employs the terms “post-modern” and “post-hegemonic”to underscore that traditional biblical interpretation raises a problem of ethics. Joseph C.Hough, Jr., in his article “Globalization in Theological Education,” in Segovia and Tolbert,Reading, 63, stresses the importance of incorporating cultural analysis of the reading community into the methodology of doing Biblical Studies when he writes:Cultural analysis is as important, if not more important, than traditional historical criticism for the under-standing of both the history of biblical interpretation and contemporary interpretations. Implied in thisfocus on cultural analysis is yet another important emphasis. The interpretation of a text, while requiringthe work of scientific scholarship, must give an account of how the text might be heard by those commu-nities to whom it is addressed.
- Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Minneapolis:Fortress Press, 1995), 4.
- Many postcolonial adherents argue for placing the Christian Scriptures in a continuumwith all Scriptures—Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, and others. See for instance Sugirtharajah,“‘Biblical Studies in India,’” 294. Indeed, this goes against the confessional Christian com-mitment to the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Nevertheless, there is Christian scholar-ship that calls for a wider appropriation of the term ‘canon’ to include sacrament, ritual, andliturgy. See, for instance, William J. Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: Fromthe Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Others argue that since theBible has been used as an instrument of oppression, it must be subject to ethical critique and‘demystification’ like any other cultural icon or symbol. On this, see Kwok Pui-Lan, Discov-ering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 30. To be sure, confes-sional Christians have not been responsible enough to acknowledge how destructive the useof the Bible has been in history. An appropriate treatment of the Bible must include sustaineddiscussion about the destruction that has been wrought by various biblical narratives. In-deed, it would be an act of violence to victims of such destruction to play down these read-ings. Nevertheless, reading communities may also find liberating elements in new readingsof those same destructive narratives which in the end may provide for those communitiespowerful experiences through their active subverting of the oppressive readings. This poten-tiality for meaning cannot be discounted.
- A number of confessional Christian scholars have made a case for incorporatingpostmodernism with its critique of Enlightenment thinking into Christian scholarship. See,for instance, John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, eds., Radical Orthodoxy:A New Theology (New York: Routledge, 1999); see also Grenz, Primer; Kenneson, “There’s NoSuch Thing”; James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid?; Ward, Barth, Derrida; and Westphal, Overcom-ing Onto-Theology. However, I have not found a similar interest among confessional Chris-tians in postcolonialism. This may be a product of evangelicalism’s generally conservativesocial perspective, in which American civil religious values are privileged. On this, see Gre-gory Boyd, The Myth of A Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005); Emerson andSmith, Divided by Faith; Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence, Captain America and theCrusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003);George M. Marsden, Religion and American Culture, 2nd ed. (Orlando, FL: Harcourt CollegePublishers, 2001, reprint 1990).
- Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: OxfordUniversity Press, 2002), 3, 107.
- From APU Diversity Website. See n. 2 above.